As a Brit it feels good to be able to write that title without the hint of sarcasm or cynicism that could so easily accompany it. That’s not to say that I’m not proud to be British – I am – but in recent years we have taken something of a passenger seat on the journey to space and when it comes to manned space flight we have pretty much just climbed in to the back seat and had a bit of a snooze.
Tucked away in the wilds of Oxfordshire is a company that has been steadily working on a project that has the potential to deliver a game changing vehicle to the commercial space industry… That company is Reaction Engines LTD and the vehicle is SKYLON!
The first thing you will probably notice when you look at SKYLON is that it is sexy… Lets be honest, this is what a spacecraft should look like, it even has a sexy spaceship-type name. When you look at SKYLON you can almost feel the future catching up to us and following a quick scan over the blurb on the Reaction Engines LTD web site it’s clear that SKYLON is much more than a sexy looking vehicle, she is also capable of providing the holy grail of space flight… Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO). In other words, unlike every other vehicle that has ever flown in space, every single piece of hardware that goes up, will make it in to orbit and then come back down to earth, no parts are discarded to burn up in the atmosphere or to be recovered from the ocean. Skylon will take off from a runway like a conventional aircraft, travel in to Orbit and then land back on a runway when it has completed it mission. It is this capability that truly makes SKYLON a game changer.
All of this is made possible by a new type of engine that Reaction Engines LTD have been busily beavering away on, that engine goes by the name of SABRE. This revolutionary engine essentially combines the functions of a traditional Jet engine with those of a rocket engine. This allows SABRE to seamlessly transition from atmospheric flight to space flight and back again without the need for multiple rocket stages as seen on the Saturn V and the shuttle, or the need for a carrier plane like Virgin Galactic’s White Night. Previous attempts to design and build similar engines have all fallen by the wayside, doomed by poor thrust to weight ratios brought on by the excessive weight of the pre-cooling systems required to make them work. But all this has changed with the advancement of light weight materials and Reaction Engines LTD’s patented design.
So why haven’t we all heard about this sexy, British, game changing, potentially revolutionary new space vehicle? Well that’s because it hasn’t been built yet, at least not entirely. Elements of the essential pre-cooling system have recently undergone successful tests but the developmental phase alone is set to take 10 years to complete and cost £10 Billion. Right now funding is the one thing that stands in the way of delivering SKYLON. With that in mind an e-petition has been set up to help convince the UK government to find the £1 Billion a year that’s needed to see it through to completion.
Funding SKYLON is an expensive gamble for the government, particularly in the current economic environment, but the potential pay off could be significant with the cost of launching payloads in to space reducing from £15,000 per kg to £650 per kg, and the benefits are not restricted to orbital space flight as SKYLON could also be used as a suborbital space liner allowing people to travel around the world in a fraction of the time it takes today. So why not get involved and sign the petition… If my own personal blatherings haven’t convinced you that this endeavour is worth putting you electronic John Hancock to, then please have a read of this astonishingly well written article by Mark Stewart over at the British Interplanetary Society.
The next ten to fifteen years are going to bring a whole host of exciting firsts in the commercial space flight industry (see my earlier post on the Future of Commercial Space flight for more on this) and through SKYLON Great Britain may well be the one delivering some of those great firsts.
Let me know what you think about SKYLON and the future of Commercial Space flight in the comments section below.
All images are courtesy of Adrian Mann – you can find more of his work on his website